A few years ago, I went on pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine. Early one morning, we left our warm hotel in Jerusalem, boarded a bus without the benefit of caffeine or food, and rode in silence to the Wadi Qelt. This is a desert area, with large rock outcroppings and sand…lots and lots of sand.
We arrived at the Wadi Qelt before dawn. It was cold and dark. We walked single file along a trail, invited to choose a place to sit and watch the sun rise. From my perch, I watched as the skies began to brighten…and then that first glimmer of yellow morning light appeared. The Light allowed our eyes to see what had been hidden in darkness: layers of barren hills. The landscape seemed endless.
As the sun continued to rise, the air began to warm. Birds began to sign. A donkey began to bray. The shadows cast by the hills began to disappear. In the valleys, we could see a caravan of Bedouin … a nomadic people who move from place to place in the Wadi Qelt.
This is the scene of today’s Gospel reading. The Wadi Qelt is the desert area between the Jordan River and the Mount of Temptation.
In this place, Satan will tempt Jesus three times. Each challenge sheds light on Satan and Jesus.
The first challenge: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” In my kitchen there have been many loaves of bread baked to the point that they felt like stone, but turning stone into bread is not something humans can do. It is, however, something Jesus can do. Satan’s temptation is particular to Jesus—he is testing Jesus with a task that he knows Jesus is capable of doing. Satan knows who Jesus is.
The second challenge: “To you I will give the glory [of all the kingdoms of the earth] and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Satan offers to Jesus the adoration of the nations…earthly power, earthly authority, earthly glory. It’s like an episode of “Let’s make a Deal”… Jesus, I’m holding 5 $100 bills in my hand…they all can be yours … or you can risk it all…and have whatever God is holding for you. This temptation is also particular to Jesus—only Jesus knows the fullness of what God holds for him.
The third challenge: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels to protect you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
I would argue that there was a lot of power in my superman pajamas….complete with the red cape. I was able to leap between the twin beds in my bedroom safely. And, more importantly to my mother, armed with the man of steel’s uniform, I was able to sleep alone at night without a floodlight for a nightlight.
Notwithstanding Superman’s extraordinary powers, we know that humans cannot jump from a mountain and survive. Satan knows this, too. He is challenging Jesus to a test that is particular to the Son of God.
The great drama of these three challenges ends when Satan realizes Jesus will not take the bait.
But, it is the beginning of the drama that really caught my eye this week:
After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
The Holy Spirit leads Jesus in the wilderness.
In Scripture, wilderness represents liminal space …or, a time of transition in life. For the Israelites, the exodus from Egypt through the Wilderness is a liminal space. Here, they face transition: They must leave behind their identity as slaves. And they must learn to enter into righteous relationship with Yahweh…to depend on Yahweh’s abundant provision.
Yahweh will not lead them from the wilderness until they demonstrate their preparedness to be God’s people…until their transition is complete.
Jesus has been working as a carpenter, serving as the head of household for his earthly family. And now he has been baptized—he has turned toward his Divine purpose. Before his ministry will begin, he must pass through the Wilderness, liminal space. He faces transition: to let go of what was…and prepare for what will be.
Richard Rohr says, “The very vulnerability and openness of liminal space allows room for something genuinely new to happen.”
Lent is a liminal space in our Christian life. We are invited to prepare ourselves for Easter…to experience the empty tomb anew…to experience the risen Christ as Paul did: to be changed, turned toward our Kingdom of God life.
In Jesus’ wilderness experience, Satan gave particular tests…tests that reflect the power and the possibility unique to Jesus. Jesus does not face these tests alone…he is led by the Spirit through all of it. Spoiler alert: this is what the Harry Potter stories teach us. We do not walk through the shadowy places of our lives alone.
Darkness and Light co-exist. Our eyes may only perceive the darkness at times, but we could not know darkness without knowing Light.
We come to Lent differently each year. This year, many of us are grappling with the chaos in Russia and the Ukraine, with the death of loved ones, failed relationships, changes in work status, medical diagnoses, wondering if our retirement assets will survive economic turmoil, will we have a job tomorrow, will there be another variation of COVID?
Thomas Merton said, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”
There is courage, faith, and hope in knowing that we do not walk alone. Yahweh’s pillar of cloud led the Israelites through the wilderness. The Spirit led Jesus through the wilderness. And the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide, leads us through Lent.
May you know the palpable presence of God as you journey to Easter.
 Richard Rohr “Liminal Space: between two worlds”